Tom Sermanni

What to watch for from U.S. Women’s National Team on Wednesday

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PORTLAND, Ore. — The Tom Sermanni era of United States Women’s National Team soccer is still over a month away, even if the transition period begins tomorrow. At tenuous post-Tom, pre-Pia period means the match will be like most since the U.S. won gold: rich on star power but light on relevance.

A continuation of the States’ prolonged post-Olympic celebration tour, Wednesday’s match against the Republic of Ireland comes two-and-a-half years before the team’s next major competition. It also features an opponent that’s ranked 34th in the world (10 spots below Mexico) that never threatened to get out of their group in Euro 2013 qualifying. If last month’s matches against Germany were overlooked, Wednesday’s may barely be noticed.

The level of competition is a reminder of context. This is a celebration tour. The team’s not preparing for anything; rather, they’re taking this opportunity to leverage a successful Olympic campaign, selling a few tickets in the process.

The most important part of this year-ending, five-match stretch (two against Ireland, three against China) will be a veteran auditioning for their new coach. Even though Jillian Ellis will continue running the team, every player knows Tom Sermanni will be watching. How the team performs in this pre-tryout period will be the main reason to follow the next three weeks worth of games.

Here are some areas to watch, though for a team that’s gone 23-1-3 this year, they’re all relative concerns:

source: AP1. When will the Serrmani effect be felt?

The question is actually assumptive, on three levels. It presumes a new coach (a) who has still not officially taken over will (a) have an effect and (b) that effect’s impact is a matter of when, not if. It’s possible the 58-year-old Scot’s main influence will be on continuity – forcing a bridge between a highly successful Sundhage regime and his own. If that happens, we won’t be able to detect Sermanni’s influence.

Although there were small stylistic differences in how Sermanni’s Australia teams played, the approach was largely the same as a U.S. side that’s aspired to a more possession-sensitive approach in the wake of Germany 2011. When he arrives, Sermanni (right), who has already spoken positively about his new team’s technical qualities (hinting they may be underrated), will help this progression, though we’re unlikely to see much difference in the interim.

Still, as a Portland crowd who have been waiting for Caleb Porter know, an absentee coach’s effects can still be felt. If you see this U.S. team show a sudden disinclination toward playing long out of the back, credit Tom Sermanni.

MORE: More detail on the U.S.’s new head coach

source: AP2. Is the defense improving?

National team diehards have long expressed concerns about the team’s defending, with seven goals allowed in six World Cup matches underscoring the team’s problems against top competition. Those problems appeared on the wane when the U.S. gave up only three goals in this year’s first 10 games, but as the Olympic semifinal against Canada showed, the U.S. have to outgun too many teams. Over their last seven games, the U.S. have given up 10 goals.

A lot of that was Pia Sundhage’s willingness to play open games. With a new coach coming in, the defense may need to prove it can lock down opponents.

Christie Rampone (right), the team’s 37-year-old captain, appears to be sticking around to anchor the defense. She’s still among the best players in the world at her position, though the spot to her left – often occupied by Rachel Buehler – needs to be firmed up. That could be done by restoring Buehler’s confidence, though fan favorite Becky Sauerbrunn, who possesses the ball skills to help the U.S.’s stylistic shift, should be considered.

source: Getty Images3. [Obligatory concern about the midfield here]

The States have a lot of depth in attack and on the wings, but in midfield, they’re sorely lacking for choice. Shannon Boxx, Lauren Cheney (right), and Carli Lloyd are Sermanni’s — uh, Ellis’s — current options, with Cheney and Lloyd the likely pairing as the team approaches Canada 2015. Cheney’s positional versatility and Lloyd’s flare for the dramatic make it a capable pair, but against teams like France, Germany, and Japan, the lack of speed, variety, and ball-winning leave the U.S. at a disadvantage.

In Megan Rapinoe and Tobin Heath, Sermanni has wide players capable of playing attacking midfield positions, but it’s unclear whether that role would conflict with Abby Wambach, who (with the emergence of Alex Morgan) spends more time occupying that space, waiting for play to come to her feet.

The other idea would be to restore Sauerbrunn to the midfield, a role she playing in college. At the base of a triangle with Cheney and Lloyd, Sauerbrunn would allow the two more attacked-minded midfielders to venture forward without exposing the defense. Her skill on the ball can act as a fulcrum when the States have established their attack, while her time as a defender make her the best choice to protect (and possibly solve the problems of) a vulnerable defense.

Conceivably carrying many of the qualities of a player like Barcelona’s Sergio Busquets, Sauerbrunn’s a potential response to the midfield strength of the U.S.’s main rivals (Germany, France, Japan). While some have envisioned a similar role for Lauren Cheney, moving Sauerbrunn into midfield would allow one of the States’ goal scoring threats to stay higher up the field.

MORE: Coach Sermanni’s to-do list ahead of Canada 2015

source: Getty Images4. Is Heath really a wide player?

For most of her career at North Carolina, Heath played left midfield for teams that won three national titles, a position that allowed her to take on defenders with her elite one-on-one skills. Three years after playing her last game at Chapel Hill, Heath has started to establish herself in the same position with the national team, though with mixed results.

She still shows the ability to break down a defender one-on-one, but against a higher level of competition, it happens less often. When she does beat her mark, her opposition’s increased athleticism means quicker recovery. Even when Heath’s skills prove a plus, they aren’t enough of an advantage to justify forgoing opportunities to work through Wambach and Morgan, particularly since Heath’s yet to prove a strong crosser of the ball.

Her skill, however, is undeniable, and it’s not difficult to imagine her passing, vision, and quickness being effective in the middle, given the right teammates around her. In the middle, her shot from 18-24 yards can be a real weapon. It all begs a question Serrmani must eventually answer: Is Heath a wide player – somebody who should be taking time away from Heather O’Reilly – or somebody who can help a thin midfield? Her latest audition begins Wednesday.

source: Getty Images5. Is Portland ready for the new big time?

When U.S. Soccer announced the new women’s professional league last week, president Sunil Gulati noted that for the time there would be a direct link between Major League Soccer and one of the top-flight women’s teams. The Paulson family, backers of MLS’s Portland Timbers, had signed on to support a women’s team, one that will likely make Jeld-Wen Field its home.

It’s tempting to see Wednesday night’s game as a test of women’s soccer in Portland, but for a number of reasons, we’re unlikely to see the amped atmosphere that accompanies Timbers games. As of Monday, thanks to little citywide buzz and a $38 entry-level ticket price, only 8,600 tickets had been sold for Wednesday’s match, a number trailing ticket sales for upcoming games in Phoenix, Detroit, and Houston. Add in the late weekday start and the bite of a fall northwest night, and the game won’t threaten Jeld-Wen’s 20,438 capacity.

Perversely, all those circumstances could make Wednesday’s match a good litmus test for women’s professional soccer in Portland. Even though the new team won’t be playing in late fall, there are a number of other obstacles it will have to overcome. Creating buzz will always be a problem (especially in a city that’s fallen for its MLS product), but ticket prices will be much more reasonable.

Given the circumstances that are keeping many away, getting a crowd of over 10,000 for Wednesday’s game against Ireland would be a great sign for the new professional team, especially if two or three of the night’s stars are playing for Portland come March.

Swansea City 3-1 Liverpool: Young Reds bested as Swansea officially earns safety

SWANSEA, WALES - MAY 01:  Andre Ayew (L) of Swansea City celebrates scoring the opening goal with Gylfi Sigurdsson during the Barclays Premier League match between Swansea City and Liverpool at The Liberty Stadium on May 1, 2016 in Swansea, Wales.  (Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images)
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After defeat on Thursday in the first leg of their Europa League semifinal, the Reds looked to get back on track in league play at the Liberty Stadium, as Jurgen Klopp rotated the squad to Liverpool’s youngest ever. Instead, it was the home side celebrating as a young Reds lineup was second best in a 3-1 defeat to Swansea City.

Already more than likely to stay up, Swansea mathematically clinched Premier League safety with the three points, moving above West Brom and Bournemouth into 13th with 43 points.

The two teams began lively but produced little in the opening 10 minutes. The visitors got the first chance on 12 minutes, as Gylfi Sigurdsson had a sliding effort thanks to a wonderful touch from Andre Ayew at the top of the box, but it was saved by Danny Ward.

[ MORE: Watch full PL match replays ]

The Liverpool defense looked clunky while Swansea maintained control, but it did its job, just keeping the hosts out as the rain came pouring down. Swansea had a break in the 20th minute, but Ayew’s shot was just blocked Dejan Lovren. However, the resulting corner provided a deserved breakthrough, as Ayew lost Daniel Sturridge and skied above Lovren to head home.

Jordan Ibe forced the first save of Lukasz Fabianski on 24 minutes, but it was back down the other end as Jack Cork nearly made it 2-0 but Danny Ward made a fantastic snap save to keep the low, powerful shot out.

[ MORE: Latest Premier League standings ]

The pressure continued from the hosts as Leon Britton managed to lock down the midfield and give Liverpool hardly a sniff. Just before the half-hour mark, it was Jordi Amat‘s turn to rise above Lovren on a free-kick, but he put the header just over. Moments later there was another break for Swansea, with Jefferson Montero forcing another fine save by Ward. But on 33 minutes, Ward could do nothing about an absolutely wonderful curler from Jack Cork on 33 minutes which made it 2-0.

[ MORE: Full lineups, stats, box score ]

Klopp looked to change things up, bringing on Christian Benteke at Lucas at halftime, and the changes worked. The Reds seemed to hold the ball much better after the break, and it paid dividends off a corner as Benteke worked himself away from Sigurdsson in the box and headed home.

It would be short-lived. Just three minutes later, with advantage placed after a foul in midfield, Montero weaved his way to the end line on the left and crossed to Ayew at the top of the box. With Sheyi Ojo and a host of other Reds unable to clear the ball effectively, Ayew poked it home past a frozen Danny Ward for a 3-1 Swansea lead.

Things only got worse for Liverpool, as Brad Smith received a second yellow card in the 76th minute after a very high boot in a 50/50 challenge with Swansea substitute Kyle Naughton.

With Swansea officially safe, Liverpool remains stuck in 7th, in danger of falling out of a European place sitting just a point above Southampton. Liverpool can still win a place in the Champions League next season by winning the Europa League, but should they fail to do that, a top 7 finish is the only way to return to European competition.

Manchester United legend Peter Schmeichel says he’ll be a Leicester City fan at Old Trafford

(FILE PHOTO) In this composite image a comparison has been made between images (L-R) 1251624 and 186224564 of Father (L) and Son (R). 
**LEFT IMAGE*** 11 Aug 1996: Peter Schmeichel of Manchester United celebrates during the FA Charity Shield between Manchester United and Newcastle United at Wembley Stadium in London. Manchester went on to defeat Newcastle by 4-0. Mandatory Credit: Shaun Botterill/Allsport UK 
***RIGHT IMAGE*** LEICESTER, ENGLAND - OCTOBER 29: Goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel of Leicester City celebrates a Leicester goal during the Capital One Cup fourth round match between Leicester City and Fulham at the King Power Stadium on October 29, 2013 in Leicester, England. (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
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Legendary Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel will be on hand at Old Trafford on Sunday, hoping to witness a title clinched at his old ground.

That title he’ll be rooting for isn’t for Manchester United.

With Schmeichel’s son Kasper leading the way for Leicester City this season in goal as the Foxes chase a historic result, Peter is all-in for his protégée, even at the expense of his old club.

“I live and die by the results of Man Utd, but today I want the other team to win,” Peter told BT Sport. “Blood is thicker than water.”

While Peter said his son has spent many days on the Old Trafford pitch, this will be the first time Kasper has played at his father’s old stomping grounds, having missed out on this fixture last season due to a broken foot.

Kasper said he yearned to have an influence on the game while watching his father play, and now the roles are reversed. “He’s experiencing now what I went through then,” Kasper said before the match. “The helplessness of not being able to have any influence whatsoever on the outcome of a game. It’s quite funny to hear how he’s felt during games.”

Watch Live: Manchester United vs. Leicester City (Lineups & Live Stream)

LEICESTER, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 28: Wes Morgan of Leicester City and Anthony Martial of Manchester United compete for the ball during the Barclays Premier League match between Leicester City and Manchester United at The King Power Stadium on November 28, 2015 in Leicester, England.  (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
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The fairytale is nearly complete. Leicester City would clinch the Premier League title with a win at Old Trafford against Manchester United, live on NBCSN at 9:00 a.m. ET or live online at NBC Sports Live Extra.

Jamie Vardy is still suspended for the Foxes, but he would be on hand for the celebration should they seal the deal. His replacement remains Leonardo Ulloa, who suffered a back injury after scoring a brace against Swansea last weekend, but recovers in time to start at Old Trafford.

WATCH LIVE: Manchester United vs. Leicester City live online at NBC Sports Live Extra

The side for the Foxes is unchanged from that win over Swansea, as Claudio Raneiri looks to win his first-ever league title in his managerial career.

For the hosts, the Red Devils make just one change from their win over Everton in the FA Cup semifinals last time out, with Antonio Valencia coming in for 18-year-old Tim Fosu-Mensah, who drops to the bench. Matteo Darmian is out of the lineup for the second straight match, scoring their last time out in league play against Crystal Palace but finding himself replaced on the left by Marcus Rojo.

While the story is well-documented for the visitors, this game is also a must-win for Manchester United, who need three points to stay within striking distance of the top four. Failure to garner any points would leave them in sixth, five points adrift of the top four. A win, meanwhile, jumps West Ham and brings them back within one of Manchester City.

LINEUPS

Manchester United: De Gea, Valencia, Smalling, Blind, Rojo, Carrick, Fellaini, Lingard, Rooney, Martial, Rashford.
Subs: 
Romero, Darmian, Fosu-Mensah, Herrera, Mata, Schneiderlin, Memphis.

Leicester City: Schmeichel, Simpson, Huth, Morgan, Fuchs, Mahrez, Kanté, Drinkwater, Schlupp, Okazaki, Ulloa.
Subs: 
King, Albrighton, Amartey, Gray, Wasilewski, Chilwell, Schwarzer.

With Barcelona in La Liga title fight, goalkeeper Claudio Bravo injured

BILBAO, SPAIN - AUGUST 14:  Claudio Bravo of FC Barcelona looks on  during the warm up prior to the Spanish Super Cup first leg match between FC Barcelona and Athletic Club at San Mames Stadium on August 14, 2015 in Bilbao, Spain.  (Photo by David Ramos/Getty Images)
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Barcelona’s regular league goalkeeper Claudio Bravo was injured in the 2-0 win over Real Betis on Saturday, substituted with 12 minutes to go. The club confirmed the injury on Sunday, detailing a calf injury for the Chilean, with his status for the stretch run uncertain.

Bravo, who was replaced by Marc-Andre ter Stegen in the Betis match, has played nearly every match for Barcelona in La Liga this season, owning full 90’s in every match save four in late September due to injury. Ter Stegen has received the bulk of the work in cup competitions.

With two matches to go in league play, Barcelona and Atletico Madrid are even on points atop the La Liga table, with Real Madrid a single point behind. Barcelona holds the tiebreaker on Atletico via head-to-head record, with a pair of wins over Diego Simeone’s squad.

It’s unclear if Bravo will miss any time, or even the rest of the season, with Barcelona claiming, “The extent of the injury will determine how long he will be out for.”

Barcelona finish out the season home against Espanyol and at Granada. They also have the Copa del Rey final to compete in against Sevilla on May 22, but the expected starter for that is ter Stegen either way.